NEW YORK – It’s beginning to look a lot like …Oscar season.
Forget the tree trimming and Christmas caroling. The season for Hollywood’s highest honor has kicked into high gear. And with the front-runners emerging, the race is shaping up to be highly competitive. Among the potential nominees, there are many high-wattage stars who’ve never taken home a statuette.
So, how much do Hollywood politics and a career of respected work contribute to a star’s chances of getting a nod, not to mention the ultimate golden boy?
“It never hurts that you have a body of good work and past nominations,” said New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick.
Among those bigwigs getting buzz are Jeff Bridges (“Seabiscuit”), Tom Cruise (“The Last Samurai”), Peter Jackson (“Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”), Bill Murray (“Lost in Translation”), Sean Penn (Mystic River,” “21 Grams”) and Albert Finney (“Big Fish”).
Among them, Cruise, Penn and Bridges have 10 Oscar nods, and zero wins. Finney has had five nominations and no wins. Murray has never received a nod, but has a history of impressive roles. And Peter Jackson (search), who created perhaps the most highly-acclaimed trilogy in history, has yet to walk away with the ultimate prize.
A great resume won’t buy Oscar's love, but Academy members have been known to give out “career” awards.
“They play catch up at the Oscars all the time,” said Tom O’Neil, editor of movie awards site GoldDerby.com. “They end up giving it to you for the wrong movie. Katharine Hepburn said that about ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.' Jack Lemmon got it for an insufferably bad 'Save the Tiger.'”
Other famous cases of catch-up include Al Pacino (search), who won for “Scent of a Woman” after failing to get an Oscar for classics like "The Godfather" and "Serpico,” and Paul Newman (search), who was nominated seven times before winning for “The Color of Money.”
Ultimately, many factors — including bad behavior, marketing campaigns, finicky voters, wildcard newcomers and um, actual performances — can all sway the outcome.
“The Oscars particularly are so political and it seems to be a popularity contest more than anything,” “Lord of the Rings” star Elijah Wood told Foxnews.com. “So often it doesn’t seem as if it’s about the merits of a performance or the merits of a film. It’s how good the publicity is behind it or the marketing campaign from Miramax.”
Among this year’s potential nominees are several who've shunned the Oscars in the past, including Penn, Murray and Finney. This edginess can endear the public, but alienate Academy voters who like to reward team players.
“People who don’t toe the party line tend not to go that far,” said Brandon Gray of BoxOfficeMojo.com. “It might be why [Penn] hasn’t won before. That tends to be a somewhat big deal."
O’Neil agrees that ill will can cost an actor an award, but points out that bad boys can win if they exploit their own "cool factor."
“Sean Penn is a bad boy who’s cool. Russell Crowe (search) was a bad boy who was cool — until he took a swing at a TV person. Marlon Brando was a bad boy who was cool.”
But O'Neil said someone like Murray is walking a thin line. "He’s such a Hollywood hellion who has trashed the hell out of the Oscars. It’s only going to hurt him. But he still has the cool factor. He’s right on the edge."
However, even Cruise, the ultimate good boy, won’t likely get it either.
"The role (in 'Last Samurai') isn't emotionally flamboyant enough," said O'Neil. "And they usually make the pretty boys wait."
Jackson, who will likely be nominated for "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," has a different battle to fight: the Academy's reluctance to reward fantasy films with major awards such as best picture and best director.
Lumenick, who gave the film a glowing review, is optimistic about the director's chances.
"It’s a landmark in motion picture history ... he made good on one of the biggest financial gambles in history," he said. "Voters have had three years to seriously contemplate giving it to a fantasy film for the first time and I think it will blow away the competition."
Not surprisingly, Wood agrees, although he acknowledged that Academy voters are unpredictable.
"I think he deserves it," said the wide-eyed actor. "We can all kind of agree that the accomplishment is pretty extraordinary and it’s never really been done before. I think for him not to be acknowledged for his efforts, particularly for the entirety of the trilogy, would be a shame."
But in the end, an Oscar is a nice decoration for a star's mantle, but isn’t necessarily a must-have especially for actors who already have hugely successful careers.
“It’s not essential to long-lasting respect or love from the public,” said Gray. “Cary Grant never won and he’s arguably one of the greatest movie stars of all time.”